The past two weeks have done much to sort out what had been a clouded and promising conference battle. This past weekend marked the midpoint of the League schedule.
Butler has essentially won the regular season title and should host the tournament in early March. The Bulldogs still must play at Milwaukee, at Green Bay, and at Wright State. However, with a two-game cushion in the loss column, it is highly unlikely that they might lose three, let alone two games. The conference title is theirs.
A 30-point dismantling of Milwaukee and nine-point decision over Green Bay asserted Butler's dominance over the Wisconsin squads. Butler's biggest obstacle to an undefeated HL schedule will surely be a visit to Wright State on February 7. That game caps a three-game road trip that will take the Bulldogs first to Green Bay, then Detroit before finally reaching Dayton.
Secondly, Cleveland State, following its dramatic victory at Syracuse, has leaped off the cliff of League relevance. Once the preseason favorite, the Vikings have lost three straight, including an inexcusable loss at Youngstown State.
Something must surely be afoot in the Cleveland locker room. Any team that can win in the Carrier Dome should be able to brush aside YSU with ease. Surely no Viking fan imagined the team to be five games out of first place at this point.
Wright State has firmly entrenched itself as a strong second place squad, along with the Wisconsin teams. Both of those teams visit Dayton on the last weekend of the season, when the second, third, and fourth seeds will likely be settled.
It is difficult to determine which is the greater surprise on the Wright State season: the 0-6 start, including atrocious losses to Sam Houston and Central Michigan, or the 12-2 record since. Those two losses were both to ranked opponents on the road.
More importantly, Wright State's wins have become more authoritative. Not only have the Raiders improved their offensive game, often scoring 35 points a half, but their defense, which was once their only saving grace, has become even stouter. In the last four games, WSU has held opponents to 13, 17, 18, and 19 points in a half.
UW-Milwaukee's 12-point loss to Valparaiso accomplished three things. First, it provided Butler with a needed cushion. Secondly, it allowed the other eight teams to move up relative to the Panthers (or at least remain steady in the standings). Finally, this was a much deserved victory for the Crusaders. Valpo has played well enough to win many times, only to fall depressingly short.
Joining Cleveland in the disappoint-of-the-season category is UIC and Loyola. The UIC Flames have lost six of eight games, defeating only Valpo and Detroit. In its last six games, the Ramblers have managed wins just over the three conference cellar dwellers.
In the end, the hopes of two NCAA bids for the Horizon League are bleak. Conference foes will need a Butler loss in the qualifying tournament to open up a spot, as Butler seems to be a lock for an at-large bid. The second-tier teams, RPI 77, 107, and 113, seem poised for some other postseason invitation(s).